A new exhibition at the Ogniwo Polish Museum explores the history of Polish poster art and how the posters were used to covertly communicate artists’ feelings during Communist rule.
Hidden Messages as a Means of Communication is on display at the museum (1417 Main St.) until the end of December. The posters on display range from pre-Second World War to contemporary works.
"There are many layers in this poster art on display," says Magdalena Blackmore, a Polish-language instructor at the University of Manitoba’s department of German and Slavic studies who has curated the exhibition.
A tour of the exhibition reveals posters ranging from traditional representations of cultural events (theatres, films and even circuses) to more abstract and experimental works. Blackmore says those posters became critically acclaimed and have been showcased by galleries around the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern gallery in London.
For example, in the poster titled Farewell to Autumn, by award-winning painter and poster artist Wieslaw Walkuski, the striking image of a yellowed and fragile human torso with blood-red veins is curled up around the edges like a dead leaf in fall.
Blackmore says all the posters are either owned by the museum or were donated by various people in Manitoba’s Polish community. Many of them often brought them back to Canada from Poland and displayed them in their homes. "We put a call out to the community and they decided to donate these posters," Blackmore said during a recent tour.
After the Second World War, the Soviet Union imposed Communist rule on Eastern Bloc countries under its umbrella, including Poland. Soviet rule didn’t begin to ease until 1989.
"Some cities like Warsaw were completely destroyed during the war, and as it was gradually rebuilt, you had these wooden fences around construction sites," Blackmore says. "These were the first galleries where these posters were exhibited. They were free public spaces. Because of the postwar economy and politics, it was really hard for artists to practise."
Poland also faced shortages of all sorts of goods, including art materials, she says.
"There was change in patronage because the Communist government prohibited privately owned galleries," Blackmore says. "So, there was none of that traditional patronage (from private sources) for artists. Many artists had to redefine their way of making art."
On top of that, the government insisted on particular ways of creating art and subject matter. It was called socialist realism, a style of esthetic uniformity that glorified and idealized the role of the working class, according to the exhibition.
This style was imposed on Polish artists, and they were forced to create art that reflected the Communist ideology, Blackmore adds.
"The consequences of contradicting these instructions ranged from open criticism to the ostracism of an artist and the end of their career," she says.
"The posters at that time, especially, undergo censorship. When someone designed a poster, two copies were printed and one of them was sent to a censor. The censor looked at it and there are archival photos you would see with the signature of the censor saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ — accepted or not. Only after that step was the poster sent to a publisher and printed in larger quantities."
Since there were shortages of paint and canvases, having that state sponsorship allowed many artists the means of earning an income, Blackmore says.
"The posters did not have to serve the function of advertising as we see today," she says. "The posters were just art for the sake of art.
"That’s why this field/genre was very popular at this time. When you look at some Polish posters, the posters send clear messages using universal symbols. To me, personally, the quality of work is amazing."